Letters of Recommendation
The following is advice for a hypothetical undergraduate student who is planning to ask for a letter of recommendation from a professor.
A letter of recommendation is typically a 1-2 page essay evaluating aspects of a student’s goodness of fit for a graduate school, job, scholarship, award, or internship. Topics often addressed in a letter of recommendation include a student’s ability and performance along the following dimensions:
- intelligence (e.g. exam grades),
- responsibility (e.g. completing assignments on time),
- curiosity (e.g. engaging in research outside of class),
- grit (e.g. overcoming initial struggles),
- communication (e.g. asking well-formulated questions during class),
- initiative (e.g. starting assignments long before they are due),
- leadership (e.g. holding executive positions in student organizations), and
- teamwork (e.g. working well with fellow students on group projects).
It is nearly impossible for a professor to write a meaningful letter about a student based only on the student’s class grades – “this student made an A” does not fill up a 1-2 page essay! Therefore, obtaining a great letter of recommendation requires taking steps to ensure the professor can write plenty about your abilities along these various dimensions.
Before asking for a letter:
To ensure the professor has enough material to write a strong letter in your favor, consider taking the following steps in advance:
- Earn an A in that professor’s class. This ensures that you were one of the top students according to that professor’s own measure of intellectual achievement.
- Ask thoughtful questions during class and/or office hours. This is your chance to demonstrate your intellectual curiosity and communication skills.
- Ask for extra practice in the areas in which you are struggling, then go over your extra efforts with the professor during office hours. This is your chance to demonstrate grit and initiative.
- Start assignments early and ask questions long before the assignments are due. This shows responsibility and initiative.
- Discuss how you might apply lessons from class to real-world contexts, such as leadership roles in campus activities. This is your chance to discuss your leadership and teamwork skills and how they relate to the course material.
- If possible, take multiple classes with the same professor, completing the steps above in each class. This allows the professor to point out that you have done consistently strong work over a long period of time.
- If applying to a PhD program, discuss with the professor research topics and ask for advice on preparing for advanced research. It may even be possible to work with the professor as a research assistant, gaining valuable experience while demonstrating your research ability.
Note: While completing these steps would be ideal, many students do not and still receive good letters of recommendation, so do not be discouraged if it is too late to complete all of these steps – do the best you can with the time you have.
Asking for a letter:
It is the student’s responsibility to provide plenty of information to help the professor write a great letter. When asking for a letter of recommendation, make sure to cover the following 4 issues immediately:
- Remind the professor of your good qualities. In other words, summarize your performance in the class and how it demonstrates your intelligence, responsibility, grit, etc.
- Provide the exact deadline by which the professor must submit the letter.
- Provide your resume and transcript. This allows the professor to verify that you are a good candidate for the program before agreeing to recommend you.
- Provide information about the program to which you are applying and a discussion of why you believe it is a good fit for you. If you wrote a statement of purpose for the application, make sure to share it with the professor.
Once the professor has agreed to write the letter, immediately provide clear directions for submitting the letter. Letter submissions are typically done through an automated email that the job or graduate program sends to the professor with an upload link. It is the student’s responsibility to make sure the professor receives the instructions far in advance of the deadline.
Note: None of these steps is optional.
Here are additional resources about asking for letters of recommendation (repeating many of the points above):